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Guidelines for Starting and Operating Prison Braille Programs

Part 3: Starting and Operating

As presented in Part 1: Setting the Stage, several important steps must be completed prior to starting a prison braille program to optimize the chance for success and to minimize problems along the way. This list is included in the form of a checklist as Appendix A, and should be completed before program start-up begins.

Recruiting and hiring inmates

Professionals in the field of vision have noted over the years that many successful braille transcribers share certain personality traits and interests. Transcription is a very detail oriented task, and people who enjoy hand crafts — such as knitting, model building, and playing musical instruments — often make good transcribers. Problem solving skills, such as those needed to solve complex puzzles, are also helpful for braille transcription, as are good decision making skills.

Although it can be helpful to look for these traits when hiring inmates for prison braille programs, most program managers agree that there is really no way to predict which individuals will excel. It is sometimes the most unlikely offender who surprises everyone by focusing intently, learning quickly, producing high quality braille, and assuming a leadership role in the program. Many offenders have never had the opportunity to discover their own strengths and abilities, often surprising even themselves.

A braille transcriber job description is included as Appendix G.

Men sitting at a row of computers, transcribing braille

Miami Braille Project, Bunker Hill, Indiana

There are two requirements of the Library of Congress, National Library Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired (NLS) for braille transcribers to become nationally certified — a minimum requirement for all professional transcribers. First, they must be U.S. citizens or have residency status. Second, they must have either a high school diploma or a GED certification. Inmates who are working toward their GED can be admitted to the program and begin learning braille, but they cannot receive their certification from the Library of Congress until the GED certificate has been earned.

Beyond these mandatory national requirements, individual prisons can establish their own requirements for inmates to enter prison braille programs. However, experienced program managers across the country recommend looking for specific skills and characteristics in the applicant screening process:

Incarceration Status


Completed at least one year of sentence — preferably two — so that the offender has adjusted to the prison environment.

Well behaved — no disciplinary action for at least one year prior to hiring.

Have at least five years remaining before first possible parole or serve-out date.

[Since it can take up to two years to become a proficient transcriber, and even more time to complete advanced certifications, long sentences are preferable. Offenders serving life sentences can bring stability and consistency to braille programs, and if allowed by prison regulations, they can become teachers and mentors.]

Women sitting at a row of computers, transcribing braille

Mountain View Braille Facility, Gatesville, Texas


Good reading skills and proper grammar.

Detail oriented with an ability to stay focused through lengthy projects.

Ability to juggle and successfully complete multiple tasks.

Ability to work independently and to be a cooperative team member.

Artistic abilities and creativity can be helpful in tactile graphic production.

Basic computer knowledge including word processing is helpful, although programs can teach computer skills on the job.

Man transcribing braille at a computer

Georgia Braille Transcribers, Macon, Georgia


No medical restrictions that would prevent participation; sitting for long periods of time working on a computer is required.

Some prisons and some vision organizations will not allow inmates who have committed certain crimes to participate. For example, offenders who have committed crimes using computers are often not allowed to access computers while in prison.

All partners in a prison braille program should play a role in the selection of inmates who will join the program as transcriber trainees, since each partner has a vested interest and will be working directly with the offenders. Some prisons post job recruitment flyers throughout the facility, allowing inmates to apply for transcriber trainee positions. Since corrections officials know the population well, they can screen out those who they feel might be a security risk or may not function well in the program for other reasons. Vision and corrections personnel should interview qualified candidates together, if possible, and decide in cooperation which offenders will be hired.

In some facilities, corrections officials know exactly which offenders they want in the program and will hand select them. In this scenario, selected offenders should still be interviewed and approved by both corrections and vision professionals involved.

A growing number of prison braille programs are testing inmates selected for the program in five key areas prior to hiring: reading comprehension, grammar, proofreading, map reading, and computer skills. Weaknesses in these areas may not be readily apparent during the application and interview process, but they could cause serious problems in braille transcription later.

Space, equipment, and supplies

Big room filled with messy desks, computers, and people.

Mountain View Braille Facility, Gatesville, Texas

As stated in Part 1: Setting the Stage, the amount of space available in the prison selected to house the program will dictate how many transcribers can participate. General space and equipment needs are explained below. A detailed listing of equipment, with cost information at the time of this printing, is included as Appendix C.

Desk littered with three flickering computer monitors, a copier, scanner, and paperwork.

Grafton Braille Service Center, Grafton, Ohio

Lone woman sitting on stool at big work table.

Grafton Braille Service Center, Grafton, Ohio

  • Each transcriber needs a dedicated workstation that includes a desk, chair, computer, desktop or adjacent workspace, and storage for personal reference materials and supplies. The vision professional(s) and possibly the corrections staff supervising the program should have work stations if they are to remain in the room during operating hours.
  • The program needs a large table or other workspace for tactile graphics production and other tasks that require a large flat surface, such as collating and packaging. This space can also serve as a gathering place for transcriber training and group Grafton Braille Service Center, Grafton, Ohio planning meetings.
  • Equipment needed includes: a printer/copier/scanner, a thermoform machine (to reproduce tactile graphics onto plastic paper), several braillewriters, and a braille embosser. At least one computer must be connected to the embosser.
  • A lightbox is very helpful in developing tactile graphics, but is not absolutely essential. Lightboxes have a lighted translucent white work surface and can aid in the production of tactile graphics.
  • Bookshelves are needed for resource listings and reference materials, such as dictionaries, atlases, and catalogs.
  • Storage space is needed for program supplies, including braille paper and tactile graphics tools and materials.
  • At least two proofreading stations should be set up, placed in the most quiet area possible — see Quality Control later in this section.

A transcriber working in the OSCI Braille program in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, comb binds a document that has been transcribed into braille.

If more than one room is available, functions should be separated by noise level. For example, proofreading and transcription are best accomplished in a quiet environment. Braille embossers and braillewriters make a lot of noise when operating, so if possible, they should be in separate but adjacent areas.

Training: braille and related topics

The vision professional begins the training process by ensuring that each trainee receives materials for the literary braille transcription course from the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). There are two general ways in which learning can take place. Either transcribers work through course materials independently and the vision professional reviews and corrects their lessons, or the vision professional instructs the group as a whole and then each trainee completes the exercises in the course materials independently. A combination of these methods can be used as well.

One drawback to group training is that each transcriber should be allowed to learn and complete exercises at his or her own pace. Efforts to “keep the group together” on the same lesson have proven to be frustrating for fast learners, and discouraging for those who need more time to absorb information. All transcribers, however, should be encouraged to commit to a statement of professional ethics related to producing braille (Appendix I).

During the same period of time that trainees are learning braille, the vision professional should begin instructing the group in several areas related to braille production, such as the unique ways in which blind students learn, tactile graphic decisions and production, equipment use and maintenance, and using braille translation software. Guest teachers can present information in their areas of expertise. For example, the APH tactile graphics experts have conducted several training sessions in the prison program nearby — KCI Braille Services.

Caption below

A student studies anatomy with the help of tactile graphics.

Also during the initial training period, program staff (both vision and corrections) should begin to establish operating procedures for the production and sale of braille materials. When at least one of the trainees has completed the literary braille transcription course and sent his manuscript to NFB for evaluation,braille production can begin on a limited scale. Before certification is earned and customer orders are received, transcribers can work on “practice jobs” that are given to customers free of charge. For example, transcribers could produce elementary literary books that have never been brailled and donate them to the state school for the blind or other agencies that provide braille to young students who are blind. Or as a courtesy, and to build community awareness and support, menus of local restaurants could be transcribed into braille and given to them at no charge.


Since research to identify potential customers is conducted prior to starting a program, the foundation has already been laid for effective marketing efforts. When at least one transcriber in a program has received literary braille certification, an information sheet or flyer about services offered should be produced and sent to potential customers. It should contain the scope of services offered, the pricing structure, and contact information. See Appendix J, a sample program flyer.

Vision staff working with the program should be able to secure braille transcription work, at least initially, since they started the program to address a recognized need.

Braille is needed by:

  • Students at all educational levels.
  • Companies employing braille readers.
  • Employed adults who are blind and need materials in braille to fulfill job responsibilities. Blind and visually impaired adults who are not employed may also need braille materials in their daily lives.
  • Utilities that provide invoices in braille for customers who are blind.
  • Restaurants and hotels: signs, menus, programs, and labeling.
  • Faith communities may need religious and music materials in braille.
  • Corporations that produce annual reports and other documents in braille.

Textbook transcription

Biology, science, and physics textbooks

Most braille suppliers today would probably agree that the greatest need is for braille text- books — particularly in grades K-12, since accessible materials are required by law for these student levels. Textbooks are very visual today, making the editing and transcribing process complex and time consuming.

Although textbook transcription can begin with transcribers who are certified in literary braille by NLS, it is highly recommended that at least one transcriber in the program be certified in textbook formatting through the Braille Formats Course offered by the National Braille Association (NBA) before textbook transcription is begun. This course presents the standardized formats required for the transcription of educational materials (textbooks and related materials). Materials include sample pages from textbooks, exercises to format, and a “mini-book” for practice prior to taking the textbook certification examination.

As of 2009, NBA certification in textbook formatting is not yet required by all braille textbook purchasers. However, many professionals in the field of vision anticipate that it will become a requirement within the next few years. At any rate, transcribers who want to earn a living producing braille textbooks will significantly enhance their resume by adding this advanced certification.

Assigning and scheduling jobs

Depending upon the size and complexity of each job, the vision professional working with a program may assign the job to either one transcriber or to several transcribers to complete. For example, a restaurant menu can easily be transcribed by one person, but a ninth grade geography book would generally be divided among several, if possible. For jobs that require multiple transcribers, one of them should be assigned as the Lead Transcriber for that project. With guidance from the vision professional, this person will: ensure that the book is transcribed with consistent formatting throughout, resolve issues related to individual interpretations of braille rules, and make sure that text and graphics are collated correctly. A detailed Lead Transcriber job description is included as Appendix H.

Determining how long a job will take to complete will come with experience and the increasing skill levels of transcribers. Simple jobs can take less than a day, and more complex projects (such as textbooks) can take many months.

Since textbooks can take several months to complete, agencies purchasing braille, such as APH, typically want to receive several volumes of a textbook as they are completed. This will give the agency time to check the work and pass it along to students when they need the materials. Appendix K is a sample job specification form completed for a 12-page newsletter. Appendix L is a cost estimate form completed in response to the request described in Appendix K.

Typically, agencies will provide transcribers with a detailed schedule like this:

Job: Ninth grade geography book with an estimated 34 volumes to be delivered on the following schedule:

April 1

Print book turned over to transcribers

April 30

Transcribers deliver title pages and all supplementary materials (such as table of contents, appendices, glossary…)

May 20

Transcribers deliver volumes 1-5, including graphics

June 20

Transcribers deliver volumes 6-10, including graphics

And so on through November 20
Final volumes through 34

A braille program must agree to meet these deadlines before the project is assigned to that group. Considering delivery times, the vision professional determines how many transcribers will be needed on this project, and whether or not each deadline can be met. The system of delivering several volumes at a time is beneficial for the braille program. First, if any problems arise during initial transcription they can be worked out before the entire project is underway. Second, the program can invoice the purchasing agency for each section delivered and not wait until the entire project is completed to receive payment.

Meeting project deadlines can be challenging in the prison setting, since the unexpected (such as lengthy lockdowns and unexpected transfers of highly qualified inmates) may occur. Customers should be made aware of this possibility, and a contingency plan should be put in place. The National Prison Braille Network is a place to turn for help in these circumstances. Prison groups across the country can be contacted quickly, and if a program has the capacity to complete a job that has been delayed and wants to take it on, materials can be transferred (with approval from prison officials and help from program supervisory staff).

This situation illustrates why it is so important to have the complete support of the warden. Corrections and vision staff working with a program can request of the warden that transcribers in the program not be transferred unless it is necessary for security purposes. The warden should know enough about the program to understand the complexity of transcribing a textbook and the importance of getting that textbook to the student who is blind when it is needed.

Cost estimates for braille jobs

The cost of braille jobs generally depends upon: the complexity of the material, the number of print pages of text to be transcribed, the number of tactile graphics that need to be created, and the scope of services requested. For that reason, when an agency, such as APH, puts out a bid for a project, several print pages of the book will be included (title pages, table of contents, and a sample chapter or two) so that the vision professional or experienced transcribers are able to estimate cost for the entire project. This is an estimate and may change once the transcribers see the entire project and calculate exactly how many pages of text and graphics will be needed. Purchasing agencies should be notified immediately if a project will not be completed on schedule, and if time or cost projections change.

Between 2000 and 2008, the American Printing House for the Blind paid an average of $5.11 per page of braille for student textbooks. This includes literary, Nemeth, music, foreign language braille, and tactile graphics.

Some “rules of thumb” for estimating job costs:

  • One print page is equal to about three braille pages.
  • One visual representation in print, such as a map, can take several pages to reproduce in a tactile format, since layers of information must be separated. Training and resource materials in tactile graphic production must be provided to transcribers before they are asked to make these decisions. For pricing purposes, if it is determined that a specific print map will be reproduced in five tactile maps, the customer should be charged for five pages of graphics.
  • Each program determines what it will charge for each service offered.

Here is a sample price list for services that one prison braille program currently uses:

Literary braille (text only) $2.10 per braille page
Nemeth braille $3.00 per braille page
Tactile Graphics $3.00 per braille page
Music braille $4.00 per braille page
Embossing $0.20 per braille page
Collating and binding $5.00 per 70-page volume

Quality control

Producing braille that is free from errors is critical, making proofreading an essential part of the braille production process. Typically, when a small project or a section of a large project has been transcribed, one copy is embossed in braille and two transcribers work together to proofread. One transcriber holds the braille copy and the other holds the print copy. As the braille copy is read aloud, the person with the print copy identifies mistakes, which are then clearly marked on the braille copy. Both print and braille copies are then returned to the original transcriber, and he or she makes the necessary corrections. It is preferable that the original transcriber not proofread his or her own work. Many prison braille programs proofread every project two times in an effort to provide error-free braille to customers. In this case, some programs allow transcribers to proofread materials on a computer screen for the first proofing. Simbraille (or simulated braille) appears on the screen as black dots.


As mentioned above, invoices can be sent for jobs when they are completed, or when sections of a project are completed per job specifications. Invoice timing should be determined before a project is begun, and invoices should be as detailed as possible.

Linking with others

NBA is a membership organization that links transcribers across the country via regional and national conferences and a monthly newsletter, NBA Bulletin. This publication provides current information on braille certifications and braille code changes, as well as sample braille transcription pages. Since braille formatting decisions are often made by transcribers in their daily work, it is critical that they have access to the NBA Bulletin on a regular basis. The work of NBA and information in the newsletter are important components in national efforts to standardize braille transcription and to encourage high quality work.

At least one person in each prison braille program should be a member of NBA and should share information from this organization with all transcribers. This may be the vision professional overseeing the program, but individual transcribers can join as well. Membership in NBA prior to release will help inmates link with the national network of braille transcribers throughout the transition process. Each transcriber should continue membership following release and attend NBA conferences when possible.

The National Prison Braille Network is currently coordinated through APH in Louisville, Kentucky. APH has established a web page to connect professionals working in prison braille programs. A directory of prison braille programs across the U.S. can be found on this web page, as well as a brief description of prison braille programs called The Inside Scoop. APH also hosts a Prison Braille Forum in the fall each year in Louisville, in conjunction with its annual meeting. (Get details about joining the network.)

An increasing number of transcribers who learned braille in prison programs and now transcribe on the outside attend the Forum each year and report on their challenges and successes. Each of these individuals represents a prison braille program “success story,” and inspires vision and corrections professionals to continue their efforts.

In Their Own Words…

Doug Weber, Warden, State Penitentiary, Pheasantland Braille and Graphics, Sioux Falls, South Dakota

Pheasantland Braille and Graphics is a great program — one of the best I’ve ever seen, in terms of rehabilitation and preparing inmates for reentry. In 27 years at the South Dakota State Penitentiary, there has never been a disturbance or a disciplinary problem in the braille program. I feel proud and privileged to be able to participate in this terrific program. It is always one of my favorite places to visit when conducting a tour of the prison — a shining star in Prison Industries!

Male transcriber, Pheasantland Braille and Graphics, State Penitentiary, Sioux Falls, South Dakota

This job has taught me how much better it is to give back to society than it ever was to take from them. I have learned a valuable and rewarding skill that I can use when I get out. With this valuable job skill I have a reason to stay out of prison. I would not want to reoffend and lose everything I have studied so hard for.

Male transcriber, Pheasantland Braille and Graphics, State Penitentiary, Sioux Falls, South Dakota

The braille program gives us a chance to work together as a group and to utilize effective communication skills that we wouldn’t otherwise get from any other prison industry. …Pertaining to graphics this program has a graphics department that has developed a one-of-a-kind certification program that isn’t readily offered in the braille community.

Thirty-five men currently work in Pheasantland Braille and Graphics in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Begun in 1983, the program offers a full array of services and is becoming widely known for its focus on quality tactile graphics production. At left, a transcriber prepares a map of the U.S. for graphic production. The tactile graphic at the right is an example of a collage graphic. It teaches students about arm muscles and how they work. The arm, its components, and direction lines are glued onto the background in layers using materials of different heights and textures – foam, cardboard, and string, for example. This enables students who are blind to distinguish between skin, bones, and muscles. A key to the graphic (not included here) will explain to the student how direction lines can be used to determine the ways in which individual muscles move the arm.

Male transcriber, Georgia Braille Transcribers, Central State Prison, Macon, Georgia

This program has to be one of the closest things to a business atmosphere that a person on this side of the fence can be involved with.

Georgia Braille Transcribers (GBT) began operations in Scott State Prison in Hardwick, Georgia, in 2006. Several men from nearby Men’s State Prison also worked at Scott State. In 2009, GBT was transferred to Georgia’s Central State Prison in Macon.

While in Scott State Prison, GBT held an annual open house for prison staff and visitors across the state to learn about program operations. Transcribers set up displays and workstations to show visitors the braille production process. At left, a transcriber describes the tactile graphics production process to visitors. The display shown at the right features braillewriters, and a transcriber demonstrates how they operate.

D.W. Beckham, Assistant Division Manager at TDCJ Mountain View Unit, Gatesville, Texas; Manufacturing and Logistics Offender Work & Training Division; Texas Department of Criminal Justice

The Mountain View Braille facility is one of four designated training facilities managed by the Manufacturing & Logistics Offender Work & Training Division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The primary functions of these facilities are to develop marketable skills for offenders while providing services to tax- supported agencies, and to develop production skills and a work ethic associated with the offenders’ trade of training that can be utilized upon release.

This offenders in this facility began learning basic braille transcription in 1999 by enrolling selected offenders in the Library of Congress Literary Braille Course. The skills of the offender workforce mushroomed as a result of their efforts, and the program and Braille unit staff increased both in size and knowledge. Along with the braille production, apprentice programs were introduced that included literary, math, music, and textbook formatting.

Since the program began, transcribers have earned many certifications, that include: 84 literary, 16 textbook formatting, 20 Nemeth math, 5 music, and 1 proofreading. All staff members are required to learn braille. Currently four staff members are literary certified, and one is Nemeth certified. The dedication of both staff and offenders is evident by the progress that has been made over the years.

Recently offenders have begun using publisher files, as well as scanning hard-copy textbooks for computer aided transcription, thus enhancing their training utilizing real world skills.

Historically, the Mountain View Braille facility has used the collage method to produce tactile graphics. It has proven to be very challenging, but very rewarding. I feel that the offenders at Mountain View produce the best tactile graphics in the business. The facility has recently acquired a Tiger Embosser. The Tiger* will introduce the offenders to a whole new method of producing tactile graphics.

The combination of credible, advanced training and a demanding production schedule have brought the skills of this facility to a level with the top braille facilities in our nation. One can feel the pride and dedication upon entering the facility. It is very evident that both staff and offenders assigned to this facility have applied themselves to make this program what it is today.

It is easy for a correctional program to state that “we have a good program”. Without evaluation, however, this becomes a meaningless statement. The performance of both staff and offenders in this facility is a strong indicator that this is a good program. Since the goal of the correctional program is to facilitate a successful reentry for offenders upon release, this is the most relevant question to be answered in evaluating a correctional program. There have been 11 offenders released after completing the intensive training and production program that is required in the Mountain View Braille facility. Those that have been released are doing very well using their braille skills to earn a good income. Their success after release confirms that this is a “great” program.

[*Tiger embossers produce both braille text and tactile graphics that were created using graphic design software.]

Female transcriber sitting at computer desk.

Mountain View Braille Facility, Gatesville, Texas

Female transcriber, Mountain View Braille Facility, TDCJ Mountain View Unit, Gatesville, Texas

Before coming to prison, braille never crossed my mind. I lived life in the fast lane. I had a substance abuse problem and I basically lived to use and used to live. After seven years, my lifestyle finally caught up with me. I was at the end of my rope.

I was terrified when I received my prison sentence. The judge told me I would have to serve at least seven years before being eligible for parole; it sounded like an eternity. At that time, I had no idea what a blessing it would turn out to be. I guess you could say it was divine intervention.

I had made up my mind that I was going to work to finish a college degree I had started. You see, I started many things in my life but I rarely followed through. It’s not that I didn’t want to; I just always ended up turning back to drugs. I needed to find something I had a passion for.

I worked hard to complete my Associates Degree and felt a great sense of accomplishment upon receiving it, but there was still something missing. I had no idea what kind of profession I wanted to pursue. I met several girls from the Mountain View Braille program in my college classes. They all seemed so focused on studying braille and I could see how much hope for the future they had. There was a spark in their eyes when they talked about braille. They told me of friends who had gone home and had become extremely successful transcribers. I was encouraged to hear about former addicts, like myself, having a real career. The more I heard about it, the more I became obsessed with getting into the program.

I was accepted into the Mountain View Braille program in 2006 and my passion for braille grows stronger by the day. I worked hard to receive my Literary Certification in a little over a year. That meant more to me than my Associates Degree because I knew exactly how I would use it. I am currently waiting to take my NBA Textbook Formatting Certification exam, and I am also on my last Nemeth lesson! I have received training in tactile graphics and gained experience in transcribing books and creating tactile images that is invaluable.

It is hard for me to believe that I have worked in braille for three years. These three years in braille have given me the tools I needed to start a new life. I am excited, and have confidence in myself that I never had before. I feel like I have a marketable skill and a second chance at life. I never realized what a positive impact prison could have on a person. My attitude has changed from hopeless to hopeful.

One of the most gratifying things about braille is the lives that are affected by the work we do. It gives me a reason to wake up every morning. I never knew what freedom was, but braille has freed me from my own self- destructive ways and given me inner peace. Now I will have a chance to live again, and life with a passion is more satisfying than anything I ever imagined. I am truly free on the inside and look forward to a rewarding and fulfilling life ahead.

© Copyright American Printing House for the Blind, Inc.